top of page
  • By John H. B. Martin

Science & Art

People often contrast Science and Religion, but in fact a more telling comparison would be between Science and Art. Though the two comparisons would not be unrelated, because in fact Art is closer to Religion than Religion itself tends to be. Especially when that Religion is organized.

This is because, of all people, artists are closer to God than anyone. Since they share with God in the act of creation. They too create universes. And have absolute power over those universes. For this reason artists have little or no difficulty with theodicy. They know only too well that a work of art without evil in it would be unbelievably bland and pointless and boring. You simply couldn't learn any lessons from it. It would be uninstructive and would not engage our interests.

Many poets have been Saints and many Saints have been poets. Many artists have lived lives of saintly dedication to their discipline. One thinks of Brancusi, and Cézanne, and Van Gogh, etc. Atheists will often maintain that there is no such thing as a miracle. But confront them with a great work of art and they will become less sure of their ground. For every great work of art is miraculous. And you cannot bring about a great work of art by following some rationalistic program. It simply doesn't work like that. It seems to force itself up through the weakest point. Like a volcanic eruption. And to defy all lawmaking. Art simply cannot be legislated for.

This is because, whereas Science deals with the monotonous similarities between events, Art deals with their exciting differences. The overwhelming concern of Art is with uniqueness. The overwhelming concern of Science is with sameness. We think of Science as being realistic and Art as being imaginative. But in fact one moment's thought will show us that every event is just as much characterised by uniqueness as by similarity. And both are aspects of reality. But where similarity gives us control and power, uniqueness takes it away. While at the same time similarity is boring and depersonalising. Whereas uniqueness is exciting and humanly interesting. Sameness tends to turn individuals into objects and to render the observer cynical, depraved and manipulative. Uniqueness turns objects into individuals and has an inspiring effect on the observer. It brings out the childlike in us and evokes feelings of wonder and adoration.

Science analyses. Art synthesises. But just as Science goes wrong when it attempts to synthesise so Art goes wrong when it becomes analytical. This is why in the end the experiments of Seurat and Serusier are so boring. And why specialisation doesn't work in Art, whereas it is de rigueur in Science. And artists have always to be generalists. And the more they progress the more general and universal they become. Whereas Scientists famously know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. Artists on the other hand know less and less about more and more till they know nothing about everything. A much more humble and indeed realistic position. Socrates' position.

Don't get me wrong: both Science and Art begin in wonder. But where the Scientist says, "I wonder why?" the artist says, "Wonderful!". The artist is content to praise and celebrate. He is rendered speechless by the beauty of it all. The scientist on the other hand has to pull everything to pieces. Whereas the exclamation point dominates the Arts, the question mark dominates the Sciences.

Scientists commonly work in teams, and are relatively anonymous and white-coated. Artists commonly work on their own. And are the exact opposite of anonymous. We see them more than naked. Artists only work in teams when the nature of their art dictates that they have to. Opera- and symphony-composers, say. And architects. And playwrights. Shakespeare worked as part of a team. But according to his own say-so was a "jack of all trades." And wrote and acted and directed and arranged scenery and everything else. But he would have written on his own.

When Andy Warhol sets up an artists' factory he is fundamentally mistaking the nature of art. And indicating to the discerning eye precisely why he is such a bad artist. Picasso could never have done that. Nor Matisse. Nor Klee. Imagine a committee writing a poem! The very thought sends shudders up and down one's spine.

Science is ultimately all about power. By understanding nature we have power over it. Or so the theory goes. For this reason science is hierarchical. This is because (pace Jordan Peterson) hierarchies always necessarily involve power. One person tells another what to do. Authority is delegated. Another needs to be told what to do. Initiative is limited to the higher echelons. Admittedly responsibility comes with power. But responsibility comes with everything and anything. Even tying one's shoelaces involves responsibility. And sometimes at quite a high level. Admittedly competence doesn't have absolutely nothing to do with it. But competence for what? If I am competent enough to write a poem does that automatically make me competent enough to tell or teach another person how to write one?

Art is about truth. And is essentially antihierarchical. This is because truth recognises no ranks. It recognises everything as unique and individual. Since it sees no similarities, it sees no dissimilarities either. Every event is the captain of itself. It sees everything from within. It sees no pawns to be manipulated and used.

In Science there is progress. But not in art. There is progress in Science because knowledge is built on knowledge. But art is about radical innocence, which is surely the same as primordial ignorance. And ignorance is not built on ignorance. Ignorance merely is. Especially when it is content to remain so. Art is more playful than Science. It is altogether a less serious business. Even when it is being deeply serious. "Their eyes, their ancient glittering eyes are gay," sang Yeats, of Lear and Hamlet. Having already pointed out the "Gaiety transfiguring all that dread." In Art there is continual digress. Progress can only be said to take place within the life of a single artist. A dialectic can operate in both. Picasso progresses through several different phases, each opposed to the other, until he actually does achieve a final synthesis. In the history of Art we see cycles of Classicism and Romanticism, of Realism and Surrealism, of Expressionism and Impressionism, etc. But to imagine there's any actual progress beyond that dreary succession of cycles would be a real mistake. This can be clearly seen from the fact that in the Arts we have periods of decadence. Such periods would be totally foreign to the nature of Science.

Science would never pretend to be Art. It regards Art as far too woolly and effeminate. Power has little respect for truth. Especially subjective truth. Which just happens to be Art's particular province.

Since it is in the nature of Art to be more confused than Science it sometimes adopts a posture of embarrassingly overweening reverence towards Science, which in fact Science ill deserves. And this can reach the point when it even pretends to be a Science. This fools nobody. Least of all scientists themselves. Art goes very very wrong when it pretends to be Science. As it sometimes does. Art is always at its best when it is unabashedly itself. Politics is another thing that Art is not very good at.

Gœdel has shown that all systems of thought necessarily contain axioms that cannot be proved within that system, and therefore have to be accepted on faith. Therefore both Science and Religion are in this sense "faiths." You can say that Science proves itself by results. But then, on the personal and individual level, so does Religion. But just as some of the results of Religion are not that good, at the social or political or large-scale level, much the same is true of Science. At the individual level life is made easier by the possession of a car; at a less individual level we have traffic and smog. At the level of the individual a bad conscience is relieved by confession, penance and absolution; at a less individual level there is religious conflict.

Art on the other hand is not a system of thought. Indeed it is the exact opposite of a system: it is born of confusion. Coleridge talked of "a willing suspension of disbelief." Keats of "negative capability." Socrates (a sculptor by profession) had his aporia. I call this state of mind creative ambivalence. It is confused, yes, but it is also extremely clear. It is clear about the extent of its own confusion. As it is extremely knowledgeable about the extent of its own ignorance. All elaborate systems of thought have a terrible tendency to end in catastrophe. Marxism (or Left Hegelianism) in Stalin and Mao, etc. Right Hegelianism in Hitler and Franco and Mussollini. And in millions upon millions being killed who find their tenets or axioms unacceptable. (Or simply don't fit in). (Either their stereotype is wrong. Or they lack a stereotype.) The creative ambivalence of a Socrates is subsequently systematized by Plato; resisted and then rearranged and resystematized by an Aristotle. And so the dialectical process begins that leads ultimately to the rigidities of Kant and Hegel. The creative ambivalence of a Jesus Christ begins to be systematized by a Paul and then later by a St Augustine and a Thomas Aquinas. And we begin to get our various churches and so our schisms and heresy-huntings and dog-collars and ostentatious displays of religiosity and all the rest of it. Order is either artificially imposed, or naturally emergent. Rigidly inflexible systems of thought always belong to the former category. Art to the latter.

Art is the peculiar province of the right hemisphere of the brain, whose activities are assigned to the "heart." Rigid systems of thought are the child of the left hemisphere of the brain, whose activities are assigned to the "mind." Art is intuitive, whereas rigid systems of thought are intellectual. Ideally heart and head work together. As do intellect and intuition. But to my mind the mind should be subservient to the heart, and the intellect subservient to the intuition. It's a matter of emphasis. Discipline is necessary, but that discipline must take account of the vagaries of the heart. Heartlessness is rightly stigmatised. And where one's heart is not involved one necessarily goes wrong.

Because artists are generalists, and at the same time devote their lives to a celebration of the uniqueness of events, they tend to develop a sixth sense, which is usually closed to scientists. And this sixth sense is of course the intuition. Very advanced practitioners of the arts can be so skilled in their use of the intuition that they begin to develop psychic abilities. And even become prophets. Think of Yeats with his lifelong interest in the occult, and his eventual marriage to a medium. Eliot and Rilke too had something of the seer in them. Though both disparaged the common run of clairvoyants. For of course usually no more than one prophet is required at any one time for any one nation.

For this reason poets are often mystics. And mystics are often poets. (Which one might expect). But they are often mathematicians and logicians as well. There is nothing irrational about mysticism. Hegel may have equated the rational with the real but he also equated the rational and the mystical in his essentially mystical philosophy. Mysticism simply takes rationality to its rational (non-dualistic) conclusion.

Can a scientist even begin to analyze a unique event like Keats' "Ode To A Nightingale"? Here is a miracle that leaves an indelible trace behind it for all to see, and for all time. Yet it can never be reproduced. Yet even so scientists carry on denying the possibility of the unique event. And yet isn't this universe itself a unique event? How can they possibly prove it otherwise? (These poor fellows who cannot see the wood for the trees!) So that in the end uniqueness cannot be denied. It must be taken on board by even the most ardent humanist atheist rationalist materialist.

Art is above all a unifying process. In that process order naturally emerges and is reestablished. To begin with internally. And then, beyond that, ultimately to all the world. In its presence eventually even the most rigid atheists are humbled and contrite.

John H.B. Martin is a poet who lives in London, England. He is a graduate of London University and Australia National University and has been writing for many decades. He has written four novels and is working on a fifth. His magnum opus is a six-volume epic poem. Most of his work is yet to be published.


bottom of page